SCMP Friday, November 2, 2001

Restoring confidence

Public confidence in the Medical Council has suffered another blow after comments by the Court of Appeal that the council was letting off doctors charged with misconduct too lightly.
The court's observations are the latest in a series of incidents that have created a public impression that the council is too lenient in the way it deals with complaints against doctors. The case that remains engraved in the public's mind is that of the surgeon who answered a mobile phone call while in the operating theatre. He was cleared by the Medical Council of any misconduct.
In the most recent instance, the Court of Appeal said yesterday that a doctor was lucky to have received only a warning letter after removing a pregnant woman's uterus. On Wednesday, the court said a 12-month suspension passed on a doctor who improperly prescribed a steroid drug was insufficient.
The Medical Council now has its work cut out to prove that it can act as an impartial arbiter in patients' complaints against doctors.
The council meets next Wednesday to vote on new guidelines for sentencing those found guilty of professional misconduct. It faces a difficult task in trying to establish credible sentencing rules.
Society's expectations of doctors have changed. While in earlier and more simple times, patients were often not well informed enough to consider taking action against doctors, today patients are aware of their rights and are often well informed about medical matters.
This puts the onus on the Medical Council to set out a method of addressing complaints and sentencing doctors that is credible enough to calm public doubts.
Having a retired judge on the disciplinary committee and increasing the participation of lay people will be a step in the right direction.